A person doesn’t have to be a Bible scholar to know that the Lord commands us to be merciful towards others. Being merciful does not only mean we are to be forgiving of others. It includes a more general attitude about how we view other people. A merciful believer does not favor a rich person over a poor one, for example.
An interesting aspect of being merciful is found in Luke 15. In this chapter, the Lord gives three parables that are connected. They are connected by the words “lost” and “found,” which are mentioned in all three. There is a lost sheep that is found, a lost coin that is found, and a lost son that is found.
In each parable, there is also a celebration when what was lost is found. The shepherd of the parable calls his neighbors to celebrate with him when he finds his lost sheep. The woman calls her neighbors to celebrate with her when she finds her lost coin. In the last parable the father celebrates when his lost son is found.
Although these parables are often used to teach that those things that are lost refer to unbelievers and that God and angels celebrate when an unbeliever comes to faith, that is surely not the case. The lost sheep, coin, and son all refer to believers. Believers can, and often do, stray from a life of obedience to the Lord. When they do, they are “lost” from fellowship with their heavenly Father. While a believer can never lose eternal life, intimacy with the Lord can indeed be lost. This is what happens to a lost Christian.
One of the main points of the parables is that when a believer repents and returns to fellowship with the Lord, God is pleased. It is as though there is a party in heaven. When the shepherd and the woman call their neighbors to join the party, the point is that other believers should share the joy that the Father experiences when a straying believer is “found” by returning to intimacy with Him.
The Parable of the Lost Son, however, shows that believers often don’t respond as they should. When the son returns to his father, and the father is ecstatic that his son is found, not everybody is happy. The man has another son, an older one, who does not share his father’s view of things. He resents the fact that his brother has returned home. He is not willing to join the party with those who are rejoicing. Clearly, this is in contrast to the call in the other parables when the shepherd and the woman encourage their neighbors to join in the party, celebrating with them the fact that what was lost has been found. In this last parable, the father encourages his other son to join in the party as well.
We must admit that the son who is reluctant to join the party is a sympathetic figure to a degree. He resents the fact that his brother has acted irresponsibly. Why should this one, who wasted so much of his life and resources, be celebrated? Was it right to make such a fuss and throw such a lavish party? How could the father know that his formerly wayward son would not return to that lifestyle? Perhaps the faithful son rightfully looked at his brother with suspicion and with a large grain of salt. Maybe he could be excused for not being in a festive mood.
Don’t we see this attitude among many in churches today? When believers fall into deep sin, many conclude that the one who fell away was not even a believer at all. In many cases, those in churches are leery of the motives of such believers who return. Is this repentance sincere? Especially if it is a repeat offender, many believers will not be overly excited about the future prospects of a believer who claims to see the error of his recent lifestyle.
Whatever we can say about such an attitude towards a repentant believer, one thing is certain. It is unmerciful. We have a tendency in our flesh to judge others harshly and think that we are better than they are. We forget that growing in our likeness to Christ is a process. Sometimes, believers take serious detours. We should look at such examples with sadness. But when such a believer comes to his senses and desires to walk in fellowship with the Lord, we should not look at it with a judgmental and suspicious mind. We should be like the Lord Himself. We should join the celebration with merciful rejoicing.